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Investigators looking into the E. coli outbreak across Calgary daycares say there's one meal that has "extremely high odds" of being the source of the situation.
During an announcement on Wednesday, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Mark Joffe said there are 351 lab-confirmed cases and 37 secondary cases related to the outbreak.
"Based on our investigation, we believe that meatloaf and vegan loaf meals that were served for lunch on Aug. 29 most likely contain the E. coli bacteria that led to these infections," he added.
"Unfortunately, neither of these items could be tested as they were either eaten or discarded before this outbreak was identified."
An investigation is still on-going, and four children remain hospitalized. Moreover, several children connected to the outbreak have developed a severe illness called hemolytic uremic syndrome that affects the kidneys.
The City of Calgary said it has laid charges against a shared kitchen for operating without the proper license. The company, Fueling Minds, provided food for various daycares within the city and could face a total fine amount of up to $120,000.
But does this mean Canadian parents should worry about serving their children meatloaf, hamburgers or casserole? Read on to learn more about ground beef, food safety and whether its dangerous to eat.
What is E. coli?
E. coli are bacteria that typically live harmlessly in the intestines of humans and animals, according to Ottawa Public Health. The biggest issue is when someone consumes E. coli, where some strains of the bacteria can cause illness.
The strain causing this outbreak in Calgary, E. coli 0157, is not the typical E. coli that might give someone diarrhea for a day or two. Instead, it's a shiga toxin-producing E. coli that can lead to serious organ damage, often targeting the kidneys.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse told Mayo Clinic that "most commonly, we hear about it in raw or undercooked hamburger meat." But E. coli can also be ingested by swallowing contaminated water — like in a public pool — or through person-to-person contact.
How does E. coli get into ground meat?
During the butchering process, whether that's cattle, sheep, goats or another animal, E. coli can sometimes get onto the surface of the meat, according to HealthLinkBC.
For whole cuts of meat like steak or roasts, E. coli typically only live on the surface of the meat. That means it's easier to kill the bacteria while cooking.
But if the meat is ground or mechanically tenderized, E. coli that were living on the surface of that meat can get inside. Still, E. coli can still be killed in ground meat if it's cooked thoroughly.
Can I prevent an E. coli illness when cooking with ground meat?
There are no vaccines or medications that can prevent E. coli-based illnesses. But when cooking with food that might be contaminated with E. coli, such as ground beef, there are several food safety tips that can help prevent you from getting sick.
For starters, the safest way to thaw frozen beef is inside the fridge on a closed container or platter. According to Health Canada, you should never thaw frozen beef at room temperature. You can use a microwave, but you should cook the beef immediately.
How should I be cooking ground meat?
Cooking food thoroughly at high temperatures usually kills any bacteria, and it's recommended that you don't eat any portion of ground meat raw. According to Health Canada, the safe internal temperature for ground meat is 71°C (160°F) and 74°C (165°F) for ground poultry.
Colour isn't a reliable indicator of whether ground beef is safely cooked, as beef can sometimes remain pink despite reaching the safe internal temperature. It can also turn brown before it has reached that temperature. Therefore, it's always best to test your food with a digital thermometer.
During the cooking process, you should keep raw meat separate. That means using a different cutting board for raw meat than the one you'd use for vegetables. You should also never put cooked food on the same plate that was used for raw meat.
What's the best way to clean after cooking with ground meat?
After coming into contact with raw ground meat, you should thoroughly wash your hands along with any surfaces or utensils to prevent cross-contamination.
When cleaning your kitchen after cooking, you should opt for paper towels to safely clean surfaces that might've come in contact with raw meat. Dishcloths that aren't immediately switched out can easily cause cross-contamination, while sponges are harder to keep bacteria-free.
According to Health Canada, it's also important to sanitize your countertops before and after preparing food.